An African Esthetic — a Meta Beauty

The timing of my grasp of the esthetic was historic. It came in 1969, some months before the phrase, “Black is Beautiful” was coined. I was 16. I think it was mostly the change in hair styles, to naturals and Afros, that triggered the perceptual change. Facial planes that seemed, no, actually, were out-of-place before, suddenly made perfect visual sense, and sometimes, stunning visual sense.  But it was way more than that for me.

There was a context to there even being such a shift that exponentially intensified my experience of it. I wasn’t consciously aware of it, but I was heir to 500 years of intensely analogous history. Apparently, the acquisition of culture requires conscious knowledge, the acquisition of identity does not. I was the second generation removed from half a millennium at the bottom of a caste system. We were Serbs subject to a foreign empire — the Ottomans. We were, ashamedly, lied to about who we were, but that did not, in any way, change the way we felt about ourselves. Actually, the lie probably only intensified it. What that kind of generational experience leaves you with is a sense of yourself as stupid, worthless and ugly.

Reality may seem to contradict all that, but those feelings hover ’round, requiring a constant defense. We’re always trying consciously to combat those doubts that seem to be coming from the outside world, but are really ingrained deeply into our own souls. We could be on the other side of the world, and not even know who we are or what happened to us historically, and it will still be there, dogging us every day we live.

We didn’t know, but we knew. That was manifest in the way we paid an extraordinary amount of attention to the people over here who were at the bottom of this caste system. The first generation born here attempted to do the classic projection. Malcolm coined the description – the first English word learned by those getting off the boat from Europe, the Magic Word that promised to set them free. But my dad showed his true colors and failed miserably to be a proper American bigot. He gave me an extraordinary amount of superb attention and covert approval for contradicting it. That contradiction fascinated him. He couldn’t believe it, but he wanted to hear it repeated, constantly, from the time I was about eight till I grew up and left home. He never failed to instigate another debate he’d let me win, he’d never fail to surreptitiously repudiate the ‘stupid, worthless and ugly’ self-image he was otherwise fostering in me.

By the time I reached 16 and left home for the summer for the first time on my own for a ‘summer camp’ at Kansas University, I had, thanks to my father, a huge reference to and a huge amount of rhetoric concerning racism in America. But the issue of beauty, and the issue of an attraction to that attractiveness had never occurred to me. Of course, while everyone black was striving to look white, they weren’t beautiful. They could only be a second-rate imitation of something that was mundane to begin with. But beyond that, I was excruciatingly aware of the consequences of flaunting that taboo. I hadn’t thought of it because that thought would have been terrifying. I was from the Bigot Belt of Chicago. I knew exactly what would be in store for me. I had no intention of ever thinking that thought.

That changed very abruptly when a boy at that summer camp, a boy in transition from a beautiful child into a handsome man, had the audacity to look me in the eye. I’d gone to Emmett Till Junior High, let’s call it, in Argo, Illinois, where Emmett had lived till the age of nine. Us white kids didn’t know this, but the black kids sure did. They were totally shunning us. I had to sit behind the only boy in the school with higher grades than me, and he never spoke to me once in two years, not even a ‘thank you’ if I picked up his pencil. This was not a Jim Crow obsequiousness. This was an angry, pointed shunning.

When that new boy in that new place made eye contact, looking all the way in, finding a circuitry laid out perfectly to carry that jolt, I was outraged. How could he do that to me – open a subject I would never be able to close, not with the energy of that half a millennium swirling around me and the focal point we’d found instinctively to process it with.

The place was overrun with hippie kids and every single one of them had a crush on that boy. He was everything we wanted to believe black people really were – brilliant, charismatic, transcendent, kind, brave — in short, another version of my childhood imaginary friend, Martin, but cool. Way, way cool.

My capitulation was total. The legion of consequences looming at me meant nothing. It’s not that I stopped thinking they’d come to pass. I knew they would. But it didn’t matter. This was worth it – absolutely worth it. I passed him by moments after I’d reached that resolve and he saw it. He was flattered. He was the most popular boy there and he was flattered I had a crush on him! Stupid, worthless and ugly me! See, I told you this was magic!

It was soon after that when I had The Vision. I was one of many kids milling around the campus square at sunset, two days before we landed on the moon. A crowd had gathered around two boys wrestling and laughing in the grass. He was one of them. The round ended. He slung his shirt across his shoulder, saw me and beamed at me. The orange sunlight glistened on him. Whoever coined the word ‘shine’ as a racial slur was an imbecile. That tall, slender, graceful boy with a cherubic face of soft, purely African curves, enormously expressive eyes and mouth, framed in a dense, happy-to-be-nappy halo, shone gloriously. I knew at that moment that I would never see anything in my lifetime more beautiful.

It wasn’t about appearances at all. It was an overwhelming sense that I was witnessing something I’d been waiting hundreds of years to see. I was seeing a Phoenix rising out of ashes, the taste of which ashes had been in my mouth my whole life and beyond. This was beyond beautiful. This was a redemption. This was a resurrection. This was the most important thing in the world to me. I couldn’t see it in myself, but I could see it. Someday I’d even touch it. It would be mine – the treasure lying at the bottom of a sea of lies; ugly, stupid, worthless lies, an incorruptible treasure shining gloriously in the light of day.

So what happened? Moments later, on the bridge spanning the freeway, I got to talk to him. I was astonished I was able to talk, given the enormity of the crush I had on him, but I felt perfectly calm and normal. We talked for a few moments, and then, as if part of a tiresomely predictable script, the cops came and hauled him away — harmlessly, thank god — forever sealing the events of that day into a pinnacle wherein I’d store their meaning for the rest of my life.

And that’s why an African esthetic is more than just an esthetic. It’s not an issue of ‘Well, black people can be just as good looking as anybody else.” It’s that black Americans were able to take a very high road and regain a stolen dignity and pride in an unprecedented way that adds a glow to their version of beauty that is a joy to behold. I may have been able to see it because my own ethnic emotional legacy was so similar, but everyone who’s been a child has belonged to a social class whose rights can be horribly abused – like the Christinna Ricci character in “Black Snake Moan.” Samuel Jackson describes the part he played as a Lazarus – same concept. Racism relentlessly twists any attraction to anything black as rank, animalistic lust, but anyone, anywhere can feel the subtext I’ve described here. It needs to be part of the discussion about what can attract white people to black people.

Serbian Ideal of female beauty.
Serbian Ideal of female beauty.

The high road to transcendent beauty that African Americans took the people I came from have had no access to, but that’s another story for another day, with another excuse to admire these amazing people on this side of the pond.  Let me add one thought, though.  I was talking to my friend in Belgrade about what Serbs consider an ideal of female beauty.  She said that among American actresses it would be Angelina Jolie and Halle Berry.  I realized what she was describing were Turkish beauties.  Yep, we’re color struck.   You know, those people who held us as slaves for hundreds of years.

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